How It’s New York: This series was created to showcase Irish singer-songwriters by Irish New Yorker Susan McKeown. Some of them, like Brendan O’Shea and Michael Brunnock, are New Yorkers now.

How It’s Irish: The singers are Irish, and the series took place at the Irish Arts Center.
I originally wrote this review a few months ago, but it was the second week of a new job and I never got around to reprinting it here. With Michael Brunnock launching his CD The Orchard at Rockwood Music Hall on Friday, July 20, this was the time to do it! Stay tuned for a podcast interview with him later on. Meanwhile you can hear Michael’s “Man Overboard” as the featured tune on this podcast.A version of this article was originally published in Irish Examiner USA, Tuesday March 27, 2012.  Originally the review had Brendan O’Shea, first act in SongLives, first, but we reordered in honor of Michael’s launch.

SongLives Keeps Tradition Alive

There’s something about Irish song that fits our busy, lonely city.

The lyrics often have an ache to them, as well as a stubborn optimism.
Irish singer-songwriters camping out in New York, filling their songs with two worlds, have become as much a tradition as the Irish-American fireman.
Luka Bloom got blisters on his fingers here, Glen Hansard’s here now, and many more come through.
Brava to Susan McKeown and the Irish Arts Center for showcasing this music with the new series SongLives, which had its second outing Friday night.

Singer songwriters Brendan O’Shea and Michael Brunnock took the stage, to a backdrop of a row of guitars on stands.

Though also singing in a folk-rock vein, his voice is higher than O’Shea’s with a purity to it. You can see why he would work well with such 80s alt groups as Dead Can Dance, and picture him singing in church.

Many of his references in song introductions were to the spirit.

You can hear Michael Brunnock in the the new film This Must Be the Place, as the voice of Sean Penn.Though personal, Brunnock’s lyrics tended to be more metaphorical and oblique than those of O’Shea, heard earlier.

Brunnock, from County Meath, sings in a folk-rock vein. His voice is high, with a purity to it. Yyou can see why he would work well with such 80s alt groups as Dead Can Dance, and picture him singing in church.

Many of his references in song introductions were to the spirit.

Guitarist Chris Foley accompanied him through much of his set.
Some in the audience clearly already knew “Man Overboard,” singing quietly with it, and someone muttered “classic.” It is a gorgeous song about someone needing assistance to keep from drowning spiritually and the repetition of the plea for a line, “I’m a man overboard,” builds in power like the repetition of lines in a U2 song.
“Song of the Lark,” he said, was about a bird of prey and a songbird, and is also about accessing the “divine spark” within.

Like O’Shea, Brunnock also had songs for his family, including the lovely “Softwhite and Indigo,” for his grandmother.  “Breastplate,” a song inspired by watching the peace process in Ireland while living in New York, feels like a trad ballad, and  its simple melody has a world of pain in it.
It ends with the St. Patrick prayer, which only adds to its sorrow.

Brunnock introduced “Sensation” by describing how St. Patrick “saw divinity in everything.”
The song has a swing to it, and he had the whole audience sing to “all your love comes on strong when I need it.”

It was a gorgeous way to end his set.

Brendan O’Shea, from County Kerry, runs the Scratcher sessions on Sunday nights (209 East 5th Street, 7 pm). He marveled at finding himself onstage at IAC, a place he had read about and seen on television even before he came to New York.
He joked about the trepidation of moving beyond 14th street. He hadn’t played many Irish centers, he said. He began by reading a poem he’d just composed, while some audio issues were being worked out; it was full of Irish pop culture references and comically broke the ice.

With introspective lyrics, a powerful rough voice, and only the accompaniment of the guitar, O’Shea captured a ’60s troubador feeling with his first song, “Crosswinds.”
Buy the CD here!

He followed with “Hollow Moon,” a love song, to which he added the harmonica. “Dismantled,” a song that he said got its title from Paul Rudd (before he was an A-lister), portrayed his yearning for a father he never knew, who left when he was three and died of a heart attack.
His voice has an ache in it that shares emotion. The repeated line “I‘ve seen your picture frame on my mantle piece” held chapters of pain and longing.

The song “Sunday Summer Parade,” which he wrote for “every Irish person’s day of the year,” had a nice bounce to it, and comes from his most recent album, Songs from a Tenement.
Jenna Nichols joined him for a jazzy song called “Steps,” with the audience snapping its fingers.

Brunnock and O’Shea joined together for three songs at the end, with Foley on guitar and harmony.
“Araglin,” said Brunnock, is “a love song with a happy ending,” which as he pointed out is really unusual in Irish ballads  (see this post about  Irish love songs) 
(or see this post about the unromantic Irish)

It is a traditional song that he recovered from an old cassette tape of his grandfather singing it.
O’Shea sang “the first song he wrote when he came to New York,” “Old Clock.”

 Their final duet on Dylan’s “Love in Vain” was a standout.

The two voices were a wonderful blend, and I was not the only one wishing for a joint album.

Gwen Orel
About the Author

The only New York journalist who writes for both the Forward and Irish Music Magazine.